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Deja Vu all Over Again

December 21, 2001 Columns No Comments

Deja Vu all Over Again

By Dan Hauptman

Twenty-seven consecutive appearances. The last time that the University of North Carolina men’s basketball team did not make the NCAA tournament was 1974. Dean Smith was the coach, Matt Doherty was only 12 years old, and none of the current Tar Heels were born. Since then, Carolina has advanced to nine Final Fours and won two National Championships. The streak is easily the longest ever in college basketball.

This year that streak is in serious jeopardy. Last season’s highest scorer (Joseph Forte), top rebounder (Brendan Haywood), best shot blocker (Haywood), and key sixth man (Julius Peppers) are all gone. The 2001-2002 roster is filled with Kris Lang, Jason Capel and many unknown and untested underclassmen. This is a scary scene for any Tar Heel fan and it could a have huge impact on the Matt Doherty reign as Czar of North Carolina basketball.

Dean Smith made the tournament his last 23 years, Bill Guthridge went to the Big Dance all three years that he coached UNC and if Matt Doherty is unable to advance in just his second year as coach, then grumblings and rumors could swirl like a tornado around Chapel Hill.

Doherty has his work cut out for him. Last year, the team was galvanized when Peppers and football quarterback and basketball point guard, Ronald Curry, joined the roster after the football season ended. That will not happen this year, as Peppers has already announced that he will forego playing basketball while preparing for the NFL draft. With the UNC football team advancing to the Peach Bowl, it will be until mid-January at the earliest until Curry will be able to return to the hardwood floor. He also has hinted that he may opt to pursue NFL dreams and bypass playing basketball this year.

In the meantime, there is no proven point guard on Carolina. Sophomores Brian Morrison and Adam Boone have some experience, but the team struggled when either started at the position a year ago. Neither proved to be able to handle the pressure of facing ACC defenses, a problem that could be disastrous for the Tar Heels. Also, without Forte and Haywood, the scoring will have to come from Capel, Lang and freshmen Jawad Williams, Melvin Scott, and Jackie Manuel. These rookies comprise Doherty’s first recruiting class at Carolina, another benchmark in judging his performance as coach.

The team less than 10 miles down Tobacco Road has the talent to put even more pressure on Doherty and the North Carolina basketball program. Duke, last year’s National Champion, only lost two players from a year ago (Shane Battier and Nate James). Led by guards Jason Williams and Chris Duhon and big men Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy Jr., the Blue Devils arguably have the best team in the nation again. Back-to-back Duke titles would tighten the noose around Doherty’s proverbial neck that much more.

This may be a case of deja vu for Carolina. Dean Smith, Doherty’s coach and current consultant, began his Tar Heel career in similar fashion. In December 1964, Smith was in his fourth year as coach. The team started the season 6-6 and critics all over campus blamed Smith for the poor record. When the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill following a loss to Wake Forest, Smith saw something that he vividly remembers many years later.
“When we pulled up in front of Woollen Gym, I noticed some students gathered across the street,” Smith wrote in his autobiography. “A dummy hung from a noose in front of the gym. I could tell it was me because of its long nose.”

Smith may be able to laugh about the incident today, but that is only because he was able to right the UNC ship and coach 36 years and win a record 879 games. The situation is entirely different and more complicated for Doherty. He is coaching in the 21st century. This is an age of Internet, newspapers, magazine, television, radio, and fans that believe that they should be coaching the team themselves. The challenge is clearly in front of Matt Doherty. If the tournament appearance streak ends, his short tenure at his dream school may soon do the same.

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